Cape Town has one of the most magical locations of any city on earth. Wrapped by a coastline which boasts both penguins and beaches, it’s watched over by Table Mountain. Pictureque landmarks continue in Signal Hill, Lion’s Head mountain, and the peaks known as the Twelve Apostles.
Beyond its harborfront, there’s a cosmopolitan culture, awesome Mediterranean climate, and a bounty of great wine and food boasting their own distinct flavors.
My experiences of Cape Town now span decades. Although this makes me feel incredibly old, it’s also a demonstration of just how alluring South Africa’s ‘mother city’ is as a destination. I just can’t stop myself heading back time after time. And when I do, I always find something new, alongside some of the most important historic sites in the entire country, as you’ll discover below.
Here’s a list of the best day trips from Cape Town – the city of big skies, beautiful beaches, and unending adventure.
1. Table Mountain
This landmark is found within Table Mountain National Park. It earns its name from its flat-topped shape, cut by glaciers millions of years ago.
Getting to the top is a right of passage for visitors to Cape Town, something which can be done by cable car.
Its individual gondolas complete a 360° rotation during their transit. This gives a panoramic view over the mountain and the surrounding ocean for every passenger.
Those looking for a work out can also make it to the summit by one of the hundreds of public footpaths that wind their way upward.
Ranging from the easy to the downright dangerous, it’s recommended that you hire a guide who’ll help you navigate these steep and rocky trails.
The best time to take the trip is in the morning when the skies are clear, so you can explore the various viewpoints which dot its edges.
Recommended combo-ticket: Table Mountain Cable Car Ticket & Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Combo
2. The District Six Museum
The District Six Museum is a must-visit for anyone who would like to take a history lesson and learn about the country’s struggle in overcoming apartheid.
The museum was created in 1994, and does a fantastic job of educating visitors about the area’s locals and their history.
In 1966, when apartheid was in full swing, multiracial District Six was declared a whites only neighborhood. It meant approximately 60,000 black residents were forced to move to townships on the outskirts of the city.
The plan was to regenerate the area. But despite officially renaming it Zonnebloem (or ‘sunflower’), oppositition was so great much of the area was left bulldozed and abandoned until the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
To discover just what life was like for locals during apartheid, I don’t think there’s anywhere better in Cape Town.
Recommended tour: Cape Town: Half-Day Guided Township Tour
3. Robben Island
Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; a symbol of hope and triumph after years of oppression. Over hundreds of years of habitation, it has acted as a military base, and a mental institution.
Undoubtedly though, Robben Island is best known for its role as a prison for politcal prisoners during the apartheid regime.
It’s on this island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. Sleeping in a tiny cell, much of his time was spent crushing rocks in a limestone quarry on the island.
Both Mandela’s cell and the quarry form part of the island’s tours.
Anyone who’s interested in soaking up some history should visit the island’s museum, which offers in more detail the history and culture of the island.
The most intriguing part is that tours are often led by former inmates, who give first-hand accounts of exactly what they had to endure.
If you have time, Robben Island is a great spot for birdwatching. Species range from oyster catchers to penguins.
A boat ride to Robben Island will take you approximately 45 minutes one way from Nelson Mandela Gateway in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.
Recommended tour: Robben Island Ferry Ticket and Township Combo Tour
4. Old Biscuit Mill
The Old Biscuit Mill, just as the name suggests, was once a biscuit factory in the 19th Century.
Today, the buildings have been converted into a rustic, warm-hearted village that houses some of Cape Town’s most charming architecture.
Rivalling the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the Old Biscuit Mill is home to numerous indy shops, dynamic offices, and food joints sure to get your stomach rumbling.
Given the country’s history, its restaurants feature a variety of foods from all over the world.
Regular live performances bring the entire mill to life. They are most common on weekends, when visitors from all walks of life flock to shop at the craft shops and designer stores.
This bustling hub is situated approximately 10 minutes from the city center.
Multicultural Bo-Kaap was formerly known as the Malay Quarter. Today, it’s well known for its brightly colored houses, which continue to be an architectural delight in the age of instagram and social media.
This residential area dates back to the 18th Century and is characterized by vibrant one and two-story houses on romantic cobbled streets.
Historically unique, the neighborhood was the traditional location of Cape Town’s Muslim community. The city’s oldest surviving residential neighborhood, it has the largest number of buildings dating before 1850 anywhere in South Africa.
With many of its homes first rented out to slaves in the 18th century, Bo-Kaap’s colorful facades developed as an expression of liberty on becoming free. It continued as a tradition, and as a means of keeping the community together.
Even today residents check with neighbors to ensure colors don’t clash.
Walking distance from the center of Cape Town, I’d recommend taking an afternoon stroll through Bo-Kaap, looking out for its colorful homes, fascinating murals, and historic mosques.
6. Clifton Beach
Cape Town isn’t short of coastline or beaches, but Clifton Beach is a magical jewel and a tourist’s paradise.
In fact, the upmarket suburb of Clifton has four beaches each separated by massive granite boulders. They’re named first, second, third, and fourth beaches.
Used by a nice mix of locals and visitors, the soft white sands of Clifton Beach have been recognized internationally for meeting stringent safety and environmental standards.
Located away from Cape Town’s sometimes strong winds – the ‘Cape Doctor’ – Clifton Beach is one of the best spots for sunbathing. Swimming is another possibility in the clear shallows, with surfers not uncommon either.
Don’t forget about Clifton’s Atlantic views, which are perhaps best enjoyed from a bar at sun set.
This stunning beach is a 20-minute drive from the city center.
Related tour: Cape Peninsula and Penguin Colony Full Day Tour
7. Greenmarket Square
Greenmarket Square is a vibrant market for African crafts right at the heart of Cape Town.
The vendors come from all parts of Africa, including South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and a select few from west Africa.
Thanks to the immigrants who come to South Africa seeking a better life, you will find crafts that represent their various countries and cultures.
This cobbled public market is one of South Africa’s oldest, and originally functioned as a slave market.
Today, the vendors sell a wide variety of merchandise, ranging from hand-crafted trinkets such as carved animals, to painted fabrics including artworks.
Greenmarket Square is therefore a great place to find some different and authentic curios and jewelry to take home.
Surrounding streets have a range of cafes and restaurants, many with small terraces for enjoying the sun and warmth of the city.
8. The Winelands
South Africa has a flourishing wine industry which enjoys an impressive reputation. On your trip to Cape Town, you should definitely plan a trip to the Winelands and test some of South Africa’s best whites, reds, and rosés.
It all began in the 17th century, when the city’s founder, Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck, planted the first vines and produced the very first bottle of South African wine.
Since then, the wine industry of Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek has only gone from strength to strength. These well-to-do towns are characterized by stunning historical mansions, mostly in the Cape Dutch style.
Slipping past driveways, it’s not unusual to see a Porche, followed by a Ferrari, or a Lamborghini. No wonder when the Cape Winelands are just an hour from the city.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a wine connoisseur, taking at least a half day Winelands tour is well worth it.
Many vineyards have expanded to produce top quality olive oils, while photographers will be sure to fall for the stunning panoramas the region boasts too.
The wine estates, the rolling vineyards, and the towering mountains make you feel like you’re in a totally different world.
Amazing tour: South African Winelands Half Day Tour and Tasting
9. Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is located on the Atlantic shore in South Africa’s oldest harbor.
Thanks to its strategic positioning, which offers magnificent views of the ocean and Table Mountain, about 100,000 people visit the place daily during peak season.
The complex was designed by Adrian van der Vyver and named after Queen Victoria (Empress of South Africa) and her second son, Alfred.
He became the first member of the British royal family to visit the country when he arrived onboard HMS Euryalus in 1860.
Once forming boat-building basins, the V&A Waterfront was converted into a 123-hectare mixed-use destination. It’s a favorite spot for retail therapy, and has an excellent choice of dining options.
Close by, you’ll find the stylish Zeitz MOCAA art gallery, carved out of a massive grain silo.
The V&A Waterfront is also the location of the Nelson Mandela Gateway ferry terminal for trips to Robben Island. So you’re sure to find yourself here at some point during your time in Cape Town.
10. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens proves that not all gardens are created equal.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the gardens contain over 7000 species of plant, almost exclusive from southern Africa. It remains a vital cog in the machinery of protecting South Africa’s unique flora.
The 89-acre garden was started in 1913 by botanist Harold Pearson, and is part of the 528-hectare Kirstenbosch Estate. But its history also connects it to none other than Jan van Riebeeck and Cecil Rhodes.
Situated on the inland side of Table Mountain, its mesmerizing collection of plants are best discovered by making use of the myriad signposted walking trails.
They wind up and down the mountain slopes, taking in sights including part of the hedge planted by van Riebeeck in the 1650s, and the Boomslang canopy walkway.
Adrenaline junkies will enjoy the tougher hike along the Skeleton Gorge trail. However, it’s also perfectly acceptable to sit on Kirstenbosch’s lawns and enjoy a picnic.
And all just 13 km away from central Cape Town.
Suggested tour: Skeleton Gorge and Kirstenbosch Gardens Hike
11. Cape of Good Hope
Drift south of Cape Town’s heart and you’ll soon enter the realm of the Cape Peninsula. Largely pristine, it’s an area of yet more incredible natural beauty by both land and sea.
Much of it sits within the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, whose highlight has to be the lighthouse at Cape Point. With nothing between it an Antartica, it’s the southwesternmost point on the African continent.
Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is also home to many entirely wild animals, such as antelopes, baboons, and ostriches. The nearby Boulders Beach tops them all with a colony of African penguins.
Equally impressive is the variety of plants which can be found here, making up a significant part of the Cape Floral Kingdom. It’s the smallest of the six plant kingdoms defined worldwide.
Most tours make the route via Chapman’s Peak Drive, a stretch of stunning driving between Noordhoek and Hout Bay. Make sure yours will too, or you’ll be missing out on glorious coastal views.
Available tour: Cape Point and Boulders Beach Full-Day Tour
12. Camp’s Bay
Camp’s Bay was originally known as Baai von Kamptz, after Dutch sailor Friedrich von Kamptz.
This affluent suburb is edged by breathtaking, boulder-flanked beaches.
The vast stretch of Camp’s Bay’s soft sand is flanked by bars and cafes, offering an assortment of both local and international cuisines.
Just like Clifton Beach, Camp’s Bay is shielded from strong winds, creating a great atmosphere where families can picnic and enjoy the outdoors.
The Bay is about 5 to 6 miles away from Cape Town and would make a great destination for a day trip from the city.
Paternoster is a quiet oasis that is rumored to be one of South Africa’s oldest fishing villages.
The area has a lobster factory, while the locals catch and sell herring, fish in the deep sea, and draw mussels from the rocks.
For this reason, Paternoster has a high density of seafood restaurants rated world-class.
The name Paternoster directly translates to “Our Father” from Latin. It’s believed to have come about when Portuguese fishermen got stranded offshore and supposedly cried out this prayer before being miraculous saved.
Today, heading out onto the water isn’t the preserve of fishermen. Paternoster offers the possibility of kayaking, kite surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The water can be very cold, making wetsuits a must.
If that hasn’t put you off, Paternoster is within easy driving distance of Cape Town.
The 90-minute drive is definitely worth it for the town’s serenity and fabulous array of restaurants.
Hermanus is a charming town to visit at any time of year, thanks to a dramatic coastline on the Indian Ocean.
But it really comes to life between the months of June and October (South African winter), which is whale-watching season.
If you find yourself in Cape Town around this time of year, you definitely need to make a visit to what’s often called the whale-watching capital of the world.
Numerous whales converge here to mate and calve, with both humpbacks and southern right whales regular callers.
These gracious creatures can be spotted from different locations along the waterfront. However, boat tours provide a much better view as these majestic mammals breach the waves and care for their young.
The 115 km between Cape Town and Hermanus can be covered in approximately two hours by road.
15. Aquila Private Game Reserve
This 4-star game reserve is located two hours away from Cape Town to the northeast.
Lying just off national highway 1, the 10,000-hectare reserve is home to the Big Five, namely rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards, and buffalo’s.
They can be spotted on game drives, horseback safaris, and from quad bikes, allowing you to feel part of nature rather than apart from it.
The reserve also maintains the Aquila Animal Rescue and Conservation Center, providing sanctuary for animals that are no longer able to survive in the wild.
Afternoon safaris make it possible to visit as a day trip from Cape Town.